Railway Propylaeum – The Euston Arch

This is a post about the Euston Arch.

The Arch was the gateway to the old Euston Station and, in the other direction, to London. Here it is, in 1955; black and impressive. It no longer stands.

The Arch was pulled down in 1962 as part of a scheme to redevelop and modernise Euston Station. This was interpreted as an act of spiteful administrative and political vandalism. This kick-started the popular architectural conservation movement in Britain.

Recently, there have been plans to rebuild the Arch and integrate it into the proposed improvements to Euston. See http://www.eustonarch.org/

So, the Arch was both a bit of architecture and a symbol…and it became the symbol of something else too. Its destruction set a fault-line for British architectural debate for the next 50 years!

You can interpret the story of the Arch as a series of shifts in its meanings. First, as a symbolic gateway. Second as a symbol of the old and, in its absence after its demolition, as a symbol of modernisation, progress and a movement forward. Thirdly, as a sign of synthesis and compromise between past and present.

Background and Geography – The Old Euston

Euston station was the conceived as the London terminal of the London and Birmingham Railway Company. The station opened in 1837.

The LBR was the first major railway into London.  The scheme was constrained by the difficulties of access to the metropolis, the political problems of redevelopment, and the costs of compulsory purchase etc. These issues forced the railway to approach London obliquely and from the west and to use tunnels under the London hills. This line of approach provided a severe limitation on the possible choices of site for the station.

In the event, the site for the station was distinguished by its small size and the narrowness of its approach. Accordingly, the railway architects were obliged to scatter facilities where they could. In the end, the station was developed as a series of separate facilities laid out along the line – the entrance, the waiting room and the train shed.

The engine shed, where engines were steamed-up and made ready, was located some distance north of all this, at Chalk Farm, Camden. This is now called the Roundhouse.

Furthermore, the immediate exit from the station forced the trains up quite a steep incline. In the first instance, engines had to be pulled out of the station on ropes and chains! Later, engines would double-up. By the 20C, powerful steam engines could slowly make the climb; but only by blowing out lots of steam and soot! This was all very dramatic, but it reduced the surrounding area to slums. Drummond Street, Camden, Chalk Farm and Primrose Hill were only rehabilitated after the clean-air act and the electrification of the railway during the early 1960s.

It’s amazing to think of these areas of London as so recently blighted. The first people to move into the area were media professionals from journalism, TV and the stage.

The Arch

The Propylaeum is a special kind of monumental arch associated with the classical architecture of ancient Greece. It’s big and it’s usually the doorway to something important.

It was entirely appropriate that, given the tastes of early Victorian England, the Directors of the London and Birmingham Railway should choose this kind of structure to be the gateway of their railway and to the metropolis.

Reyner Banham described it thus.. (Philip) Hardwick’s Propylaeum, completed 1839, is very Early Victorian and represents an attempt to express a progressive theme, the London-Birmingham Railway, in an idiom of an accepted high style of architecture, Greek Doric. The structure served no operational railway function but gave monumental form to an impressive sentiment.


As an exercise in style it was faultless. It’s giant scale gave it a gravitas that grew daily more austere (and) commanding as the soot settled blacker on the stone. One could say that it was more perfect even than the Parthenon – a mortuary perfection.

The Arch was one of those building that got better with age. As it got dirtier, the hulk of the structure became more imposing. The gilded sans-serif letters of the inscription became more impressive against this sooty backdrop.


The Demolition

The scheme to redevelop Euston involved pulling everything down and starting again with shops, offices and a station combined.  The opportunity to link the redevelopment of the station to commercial property development transformed the project. The project got hi-jacked by the special interests of the property speculators. In the circumstances, the Arch was never going to survive.

The demolition has passed into folklore. The contractor, Frank Valori, was so upset by this destruction that he offered to rebuild the arch. Although his offer was rebuffed, he numbered each piece anyway. Eventually, the stones were dumped in the River Lea. Dan Cruickshank found the stones in 1994.

The New Euston

The new station was conceptualised as an office development fronting the Euston Road with a functionally designed, international style, train shed behind. In principle, the narrowness of the site required that the station facilities be stacked one-on-top-of-the-other. The engineering complexity of this, expressed as costs, meant that the station remained a long, flat shed. All the money went on the offices. It was entirely appropriate that, some 40 years later. the privatised railway company, Railtrack, had its offices there.

There’s a wonderful document about the new station, here

http://www.eustonarch.org/britishrail1968.pdf

Anyone who is familiar with Euston, as is, will be struck by the fantasy of this shiny future. It’s a kind of airport – without the glamour and style. However, the redevelopment was instrumental in bringing together a number of architects – amonst them Theo Crosby and the founders of Archigram.

You can see what a properly vertically-integrated transport hub look like in Berlin. I posted about it, here http://areopagitica.blog.co.uk/2010/09/18/moscow-berlin-paris-and-new-york-cities-and-people-9415018/

The Debate

The decision to pull down the Arch was roundly condemned. John Betjeman became a sort of spokesperson for the conservationist movement. Many architects also opposed the scheme. Alison and Peter Smithson published a book as a memento mori of the Arch.

The debate became polarised between traditionalists and modernisers. In the context of the 1950s and 1960s this was described by Michael Frayn as a battle between herbivores and carnivores. It’s not always as simple as that though – some modernisers are roundheads and some are cavaliers. Some of the rationalists are gentle herbivores and some are brutal and puritanical carnivores. These cultural labels cut across the usual class and political demographics of British society.

To their credit, the next generation of modernist architects embraced the sense that buildings were about feelings as much as function. The puritan business culture of Britain remained suspicious of the hedonistic feelings associated with the counter-culture. In this context, the ideas of Archigram were rejected in favour of a disciplined, but generic, form of commerical development. Mostly, this expressed itself as a kind of shopping mall.

The ideas of Archigram, expressed theoretically through the fun palace, were eventually realised in the Beaubourg Centre in Paris, France, by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. Elsewhere, these ideas were theorised in Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi.

Bibliography

Banham, Barker, Lyall and Price (1996) A Critic Writes – Essays by Reyner Banham Berkley CA, UCP                                                                                                                                   see Carbonorific p.79-80 reproduced from the New Statesman 1962

Betjeman J (1972) London’s Historic Railway Stations London, John Murray

Sissons M & French P (1964) The Age of Austerity London, Penguin                               see Frayn M Festival p.330-352

Smithson Alison and Peter (1968) The Euston Arch London, T&H

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